Activists advocate for decriminalization of sex work at Democratic convention in San Francisco

Ben Klein/Staff

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Democratic presidential candidates jockeyed for public support at the Moscone Center in San Francisco on Saturday at the California Democratic Party State Convention while a group of activists supporting sex workers hosted a rally outside, urging Democrats to decriminalize sex work.

The rally was hosted by the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project, and it took place on the sidewalk near Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco. Rally participants spoke out against the recently passed Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or SESTA-FOSTA, which detractors say puts sex workers in danger. Caution tape reading “SESTA/FOSTA KILLS” was wrapped around stair railings. Protesters also voiced support for California SB 233, which, if passed, would protect sex workers from arrest when reporting violent crime. Although many sex workers at the rally voiced opposition to SESTA-FOSTA and support for SB 233, both bills have found broad support from Democrats; SESTA-FOSTA was voted into law with the support of many Democratic candidates present at the convention.

SESTA-FOSTA was signed into law by President Donald Trump in March 2018. The law revises the Communications Decency Act of 1996, ensuring that people running websites that host ads for sex work are held liable and may be prosecuted.

“They amended the Communications Decency Act in such a way that they silence any … website administrator who allows any type of advertisement for any type of sex work by conflating that sex work with human trafficking,” said Tara Coccinelle, a member of the Sex Worker Outreach Project, or SWOP. “There is a big difference between sex trafficking, which is coerced or forced, and sex work, which is consensual.”

The support for SESTA-FOSTA in Congress was overwhelming, as it garnered 25 opposing House votes and only two opposing Senate votes. Among the senators who voted for the legislation were Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — all of whom attended the California Democratic Party State Convention to raise support for their presidential campaigns.

As state attorney general, Harris made prosecution of sex work a priority. Before the passage of SESTA-FOSTA, she leveled charges of pimping against, which allegedly hosted ads for sex workers on two occasions. Both charge attempts were unsuccessful.

According to Coccinelle, the conflation of sex work with sex trafficking puts sex workers in danger.

“(It) has decimated our ability to work safely, and it has furthered the criminalization of sex workers,” Coccinelle said. “Criminalization is most impacting people who work on the streets … and the folks who get hit the hardest are youth and people of color.”

Harris has since claimed to support sex work decriminalization. Additionally, since the passage of SESTA-FOSTA, the California Senate passed SB 233, a bill from Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, that protects sex workers from arrest when reporting violent crimes and bars law enforcement from using possession of condoms as probable cause for sex work. On Saturday, rally participants in San Francisco vocalized support for the bill, which SWOP helped sponsor, according to Coccinelle.

“If sex workers fear they will be arrested when they report a violent crime, they’ll simply not come forward,” Wiener said in an email from his communications director, Victor Ruiz-Cornejo. “These practices – arresting sex workers based on condoms and while they’re reporting violent crimes – are terrible policy, but unfortunately these practices continue to happen.”

SB 233 was passed resoundingly in the California Senate, with all 28 of California’s Democratic senators voting for the bill — including Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley — and with only 10 senators voting in opposition. The bill now heads to the Assembly.

Although SB 233 has found support from state Democrats, Coccinelle was careful to specify that the bill’s main purpose is not decriminalization.

“SB 233 is not a decriminalization bill,” Coccinelle said. “It allows people engaging in sex trade the same rights as other people in terms of reporting crimes of violence and carrying condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV and STIs.”

SB 233’s legislative progression comes amid similar local policy shifts, such as the Berkeley Police Department’s adoption of measures to protect sex workers from arrest when reporting violent crime in April. Berkeley’s adoption of this measure occurred two months after SB 233 was first introduced and was modeled off of similar policies from San Francisco and Alaska.

Despite the party’s recent support of SB 233, the party does not have an official stance on decriminalization, according to Coccinelle. Wiener opposes SESTA-FOSTA, according to an email from Ruiz-Cornejo.

“We should absolutely decriminalize sex work, but we should be sure to do it in a way that does not foster sex trafficking or other forms of exploitation,” Wiener said in an email from Ruiz-Cornejo. “I believe we can thread that needle.”

Ben Klein is an assistant news editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @BenKlein_dc.